I can safely say I’ve never read another book from the perspective of a foul-mouthed crow before I read Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton. A novel unlike any other, Hollow Kingdom is an apocalyptic story told from the point of view of Shit Turd, a pet crow who once belonged to a man named Big Jim. As people succumb to a mysterious virus, S.T. suddenly finds himself needing to rely on a host of wild animals he had previously snubbed for his preferred human company. Reading Hollow Kingdom in 2019, the world Buxton created was new, creative, and engaging, and I never wanted the story to end. Luckily, Buxton has written a sequel, Feral Creatures, that digs even deeper into S.T.’s world and, let me tell you, reading about an entire planet succumbing to a deadly virus hits differently in 2021. Suddenly S.T.’s universe feels pretty familiar.
It was a joy to chat with Buxton about Feral Creatures, protecting the environment, and predicting the future through fiction.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
First, let me just say how much I loved Hollow Kingdom and how happy I was to hear that there would be a sequel, Feral Creatures. Did you always intend this story to be a series?
Kira Jane Buxton
The idea for a series came around the midway point of writing Hollow Kingdom. I set out to write a story about a crow discussing what happens to humanity — a bird’s eye view, if you will, of our species. But what surprised me while writing were the interstitial chapters I created to explore the perspectives of other species in different parts of the world. I loved writing those because it was an enriching peek into what was happening globally, and as those chapters materialized, I realized this was a much larger story. I felt that there was so much more to tell. S.T. is also a very loquacious bird and I couldn’t get him to shut up after a single novel!
I was actually working on the third book as the pandemic hit, and I had to step away from it. Even though the book is infused with levity and hope, at the very beginning of the pandemic it was hard to be so deeply entrenched in a post-apocalyptic environment. I instinctively needed to be writing something completely different. A lot of writers I spoke to at the time could relate – they either dove valiantly into the dark with their art, or wanted to escape into something decidedly buoyant and happy instead. I veered off into light and levity, but I will return to the world of S.T.
I get not being able to work on this story during the pandemic. It felt too similar at times. I remember your Instagram post from last March of a bunch of crows circling an empty school — not sure if it was real life or a scene from your book.
Kira Jane Buxton
I’ve received so many pandemic messages and emails from people sharing photos and videos that felt straight out of Hollow Kingdom. It was fascinating to see the ecological response while we were all in lockdown. Even the weeds: I go running around a school and watched them grow over the weeks, and in only two or three months they were the same height as I am. When Hollow Kingdom came out, there was one reader who suspected there was no way weeds could grow as fast as they did in the book, but during lockdown I was like, well, at least I got that right!
I guess living through this pandemic has been research for the series, but pre-COVID, what kind of research did you do for Feral Creatures?
Kira Jane Buxton
When I first had the idea for the series, I remember thinking, oh my, the research for this is going to be very depressing and dark. That was part of the impetus for writing from the perspective of a funny, sarcastic crow — it allowed me to delve into this fairly bleak territory without losing hope. But, turns out, as I did the research, I wasn’t depressed at all. I was fascinated researching how fast the weeds would grow back, how long it would take for this type of forest to gain traction or how many months or years it would take for buildings to decay. It actually doesn’t take long — we do a lot of work to maintain our infrastructure. It’s like we are at war with nature, fighting it back and taming the wild. The research really made me double down on extolling the virtues of nature as a magnificent force and our imperative need to figure out how to live harmoniously with it. We can’t fight it because we are part of it.
You also write about the fact that humans are animals, too. We talk about how our carbon emissions and plastic trash are killing other species — but it’s also killing us. We poison drinking water; pollution causes cancer. And I really loved how you address that tension in your books. S.T. thinks of humans as separate from and better than other animals, while other species in the book understand that humans are part of the whole web.
Kira Jane Buxton
This is a conversation that’s happening in almost everything I write. My work is an ongoing exploration of the absurdity of being human. In my daily life, I actually spend more time with animals than I do with people, and never more so than this past year, so perhaps that has made me hyperaware of our anthropocentric bias. We have this completely myopic view of our place in the world and see ourselves as this dominant force, even down to the language that we use when we’re talking about other species. The way that we measure intelligence is very conveniently aligned with our strengths as a species. But there is no measure of intelligence that, say, puts echolocation up high on the list, or the ability to read ultraviolet light—we humans would come up short! We’re very much a part of nature, but we close ourselves off to the vibrant natural world around us. Birds are the bellwether for climate change, we must pay close attention. We even create these little terrariums to live in that separate us from nature! We’ve removed ourselves from a world that is rich and vibrant and dangerous. But it’s all about perception.
I get messages from readers who say they’ve started engaging differently with the birds in their backyard, or they’re suddenly noticing plants or animals they had missed before. I love this because I think that the more we practice separatism and tribalism, amongst our own species and all the others, the more we are at risk of destroying our home. Because this is what we’re talking about when we talk about climate change, when we talk about drilling or fracking or deforestation–we are talking about destroying our home.
This past year has really proven how what happens in one place affects the whole world. Animals, plants, viruses, don’t need passports to move between countries. The carbon emissions we cause in America can kill someone thousands of miles away. And I loved how you show that in your books even though it’s a Seattle-based story, the virus affects animals all over the world
Kira Jane Buxton
Everything we do has a consequence. We affect one other deeply. And, in a way, what a liberating realization that we are connected, that we’re not just wandering around affecting nothing and living in a lonely vacuum. I often talk about the fact that birds are so observant because it’s part of their survival mechanism to pay attention. It should be part of our survival mechanism to pay attention, too.
I was once on a walk and had seen this beautiful bald eagle that I see regularly — I call her Rogaine. I passed this gentleman and told him there was an eagle up ahead, and he stared at me blankly and said, “I’ve been coming to this park for thirty years, and I’ve never seen an eagle here.” I started to think about the things you miss when you are wandering around, absorbed by memories or your phone. I don’t want to miss thirty years of eagles.
The power of observation is so important — it’s such a good way to be present in the world. And anthropomorphizing actually helps, too. In the scientific community, there is an understandable allergy to anthropomorphic pondering, but I think there is some inevitability to it. There’s no way that we can observe an animal without using the human brain as a filter to understand it, and I think that actually is really helpful for the purposes of fiction. It’s wonderful to find the touchstones between a human and a crow. No, scientifically, we can’t interpret what a crow is feeling with certainty, but I don’t have doubt about their theory of mind or the fact that my crows have left intentional gifts for me and have exhibited altruistic personality traits. Being kind is something we pride ourselves on as being very human, but hubris is also very human, and in my books I’m trying to explore a form of social critique. It’s also supposed to be a fun and funny read!
Seriously! One of the most fun things you can do when you’re a kid is imagining you are a different animal. I feel like reading your books is a chance to reignite that joyful connection with like the natural world, which kids have intuitively.
Kira Jane Buxton
I wanted to capture that childlike wonder, without it being puerile, if that makes sense. It’s a bit of a tightrope walk, but I tried to voice these non-human characters with a genuine sense of wonder and reverence. I’ve spent a lifetime around animals, and have been deeply captivated by every animal I’ve encountered. In writing about these reverential feelings, I was able forget the expectations put on an adult writing from the perspective of an animal or being criticized for anthropomorphism. I could instead focus on the potential for us to have these relationships with the animals and the environment around us, which is so overwhelmingly exciting and glorious. Any liberties I took while voicing animals in the books is not a fraction as exciting as what is happening in the real world. I was just reading about the largest organism in the world, which is a fungi that is larger than a blue whale. If I wrote that, as a fantasy writer, I would probably get laughed at. But it’s real!
Through fiction you show different ways that humans work with or against nature. I love how some characters learn about animals’ skills and abilities and work with them, while others steal and exploit nature for their advantage.
Kira Jane Buxton
Right. There is a question about whether some of the creatures are evolving or devolving and, what does that mean? This is why the vehicle of apocalyptic fiction is so good for social critique. Zombie fiction, in particular, usually has a very specific allegorical undercurrent, and there’s a long-standing history of these being stories of humanity’s hubris. I think I was drawn to the creative landscape of zombie fiction for that reason. So, in that way, the book is an environmental parable with humanity as nature’s literal horror. But the book is also so much about acceptance and expectation, of loving creatures as they are.
There is a line in Feral Creatures that says, “We survive when we are seen.” And I think that really distills all the themes of the book — putting pressure on ourselves, on others, on our planet, to be something they are not. We survive when we are recognized, observed, respected, and cared for as we truly are.
By Kira Jane Buxton
Grand Central Publishing
Published August 24, 2021